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Further Reading: Why The Royals’ New System Didn’t Work

A closer look at the tactics Paul Clement tried against Wigan Athletic.

Reading v Crystal Palace - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Paul Clement tried out a new system for Reading at Wigan on Saturday, and suffice to say that it didn’t work out very well. I talked about it on the this week’s podcast, but it’s taking a closer look at what the manager tried - and why it wasn’t a good idea.

The line-up

First up, the team selection. Clement made several adjustments to the side that drew 2-2 with Ipswich Town two weeks ago. Chris Gunter, John Swift, Sone Aluko and Garath McCleary all came in for Andy Yiadom, Leandro Bacuna, Modou Barrow and Sam Baldock respectively.

Straight off the bat, those aren’t great changes. Although they were all to an extent enforced (Barrow and Baldock unavailable, Bacuna and Yiadom recovering from lengthy international break journeys), Reading went into Saturday’s match without four of their more reliable players (feel free to disagree).

Clement kept Reading in their familiar 4-3-3, but made some slight alterations, setting the Royals up like so:

Reading’s new-look(ish) 4-3-3, Wigan Athletic (away)

On the whole there’s nothing revolutionary there, but note a few things: how tucked-in the wingers are, and how deep Swift was playing. You’d usually expect him to be higher up the pitch, but against Wigan he was much closer to his own goal.

A quick side-note here before we move on - that formation above is my interpretation of how Reading were set up. At various points during the match it wasn’t particularly obvious what roles certain players were supposed to take, who was meant to track runners, and so on. Whether you put that on the personnel, manager or both is up to you (I lean towards blaming Clement - it’s his responsibility to set his team up properly).

The midfield was a mess

The most obvious problem with that side is the lack of balance in the midfield. Without Saeid Ezatolahi, Leandro Bacuna or indeed even David Meyler, there was little steel or presence to protect the back four and allow the more creative options to strut their stuff. That of course is nothing new, and Clement should look for another holding midfielder in January.

Anyway, back to the game. Individually, I have nothing against any of those three midfielders playing, but when you put them all together, it just doesn’t work. Liam Kelly has done a good job settling back into that ‘deep-lying playmaker’ role in recent weeks and again didn’t look too out of place. Similarly, Andy Rinomhota showed the same tenacity and composure which caught the eye in his first league start against Bristol City.

John Swift though was a real problem. As Dave pointed out in our match report, the former Chelsea man “as a creative force... was lacking”. Although I agree with that, it’s not just a case of ‘Swift didn’t play well’ - rather, the team wasn’t set up to maximise his strengths. To illustrate that, here’s where his touches came against Wigan (Reading shooting right to left):

John Swift’s touches vs Wigan (away)

For someone best deployed as an advanced playmaker, he wasn’t getting anywhere near close enough to the opposition’s penalty area. Swift actually had more touches than any other Reading player on the day but, as you can see, most of them are in his own half, and he ain’t gonna score goals from there. Those two long lines you can see are his only shots, and he also attempted no dribbles in the match.

The wingers were far too narrow

To be fair to Swift, he may have been told outright by Clement to play a deeper role, with two teammates (Garath McCleary and Sone Aluko) lining up in the central attacking positions he would normally operate in. That was, for me, a big tactical mistake from the manager - McCleary and Aluko’s starting positions were too narrow, and as a result Reading struggled to stretch the play in the final third.

Below are all the touches made by those two - again, Reading are shooting right to left.

Garath McCleary and Sone Aluko’s touches vs Wigan (away)

As you can see, McCleary and Aluko didn’t get on the ball enough in key areas around the box - or in the penalty area at all for that matter. You won’t be surprised to know that, between them, they had just one shot at goal, played two key passes (passes that create a chance), and put in three crosses from open play. You’ll be even less surprised to hear that all of those came from Garath McCleary.

Let’s take away all of the Jamaican’s touches on Saturday, leaving only Aluko’s. You can probably see where this is going...

Sone Aluko’s touches vs Wigan (away)

Whether it’s Paul Clement’s instructions, or his own failings as a player, Aluko isn’t getting on the ball in dangerous areas anything like as much as he should do. If you zoom in, you’ll see a dot right in the top left of the graphic - it’s where Aluko’s taken three corners. Considering that he’s only got on the ball two other times in the final third (the top of the box), it can be said that - statistically - Sone Aluko’s best chance of touching the ball in a dangerous area is for Reading to have a corner.

It gets even worse when you throw in the fact that substitutes Danny Loader (67 mins), Josh Sims (74 mins) and Marc McNulty (78 mins) all had touches in the box, whereas Aluko didn’t. On the whole this - like the midfield balance conundrum - is nothing new, and I even wrote about this failing of Aluko’s game at the start of the season.

It’s not an easy problem to solve, especially when Aluko’s confidence is at rock-bottom (not helped by his own fans jeering him, whether you think that’s justified or not), so Clement will have to come up with something clever if he wants to turn the player’s fortunes around. He can start by telling the former Fulham man to get into the final third as often as is humanly possible.

A poor use of full-backs

Wingers playing narrowly can work well if you’re got full-backs that can add width themselves. Indeed, McCleary and Aluko cutting inside did provide some room on the flanks for full-backs to attack, but Reading didn’t have the personnel to take advantage.

For me, there are two different types of attacking full-backs: those that can beat a man themselves with their own acceleration and pace, and others that rely on a winger helping them out. Andy Yiadom is a good example of the former, but Chris Gunter and Tyler Blackett - neither of whom are particularly quick or confident when running at defender - are good examples of the latter.

We saw this in the 2017 play-off final when, being played as wing-backs, Gunter and Blackett were tasked with providing pretty much all of Reading’s width. However, Huddersfield didn’t find it too hard to pin them back, and the team looked short on ideas as a result. It was a similar story at Wigan, when those two couldn’t impact the game enough in the final third. Gunter and Blackett attempted just five dribbles between them on the day - four in the Latics’ half. However, only one dribble was successful (which Tyler Blackett made near his own area).

The cross stats aren’t any better; Gunter and Blackett putting in three crosses in 90 minutes. In fact, Reading went more than an hour without either of their full-backs putting in a cross. That’s a crying shame as, in Yakou Meite, we’ve got a striker who loves to have crosses swung in for him to attack in the air.

To be clear, I’m not just having a go at the players - a poor choice of system let the team down. Gunter and Blackett sorely needed help out wide at the DW and didn’t get it. Blackett in particular has shown on previous occasions that he’s capable of putting in a lethal cross, but the team selection around him has to be right if we’re to make the most of his skill.

In summary

This system could work, but not with this personnel. If I were Paul Clement, I’d suggest three main areas to alter: toughening up the midfield, throwing in some more proactive forwards, and switching the full-backs. Obviously, those changes are easier said than done, what with our current injury issues. Saeid Ezatolahi and Jordan Obita in particular would improve this side a fair bit, but we’ll have to make do without them for the short term at least.

Nonetheless, bringing in Leandro Bacuna for John Swift, Andy Yiadom for Chris Gunter, and Josh Sims for Sone Aluko are three changes that can be made as early as Tuesday night’s trip to Elland Road. You’d get energy in the middle from Bacuna, an attacking threat down the right from Yiadom, and both confidence and creativity from Sims - which he showed at Wigan.

Looking at alterations to the system itself, pushing the wingers back out wide could give them more space to attack and offer the full-backs more protection. Then again, taking players out of the middle could be suicidal in tough away games... like the one coming up at Leeds. I certainly don’t envy Paul Clement having to make these decisions on matchday.